NOTRE DAME, Ind. – If you were keeping score, Malik Zaire went first.
When NBC went to its postgame interviews on Saturday after a Blue-Gold Game so forgettable the box scores handed out omitted the second and fourth quarters, the player whose injury seemed to derail last season got first say.
But when the quarterbacks hit the postgame interview room under the stadium a half hour later, Kizer opened the sound bites while wearing blazing green shamrock pants. In terms of statements, that was the loudest one made by either quarterback as Notre Dame wrapped spring drills.
So what does it all mean? Probably nothing.
Despite the fact more than half the questions lobbed at Brian Kelly after the spring finale touched on quarterbacks, the ultimate winner between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire is not the most interesting issue. And figuring out Notre Dame’s starter before Sept. 4 at Texas is not the most important answer Kelly needs during the next three-plus months.
Notre Dame will have a top quarterback starting in Austin. Either it’s Kizer, who led two fourth quarter road comebacks and pushed Stanford and Clemson to the limit, or it’s Zaire, who beat LSU in the Music City Bowl and put Charlie Strong on the hot seat last September.
The Irish are good at quarterback. Picking between Kizer and Zaire might seem hard for Kelly. It’s not. Either way, the Irish win. They should have the best opening day starter of the Kelly regime, especially if it’s Kizer (more on that later).
“I can't keep them both happy,” Kelly said. “Somebody's going to be unhappy. I love them both. They both are committed. They are both great competitors. But somebody's going to be unhappy.”
The meat of this off-season is how Kelly and his staff mold a team from this roster of individually talented parts. Notre Dame looks more capable of competing for the College Football Playoff today than it did one month ago, which isn’t the same as saying it’s all that close.
There’s too much to replace from last year’s NFL Combine roster, although the Irish got to work on a middle linebacker (Nyles Morgan), No. 1 receiver (Torii Hunter Jr.), alpha competitive cornerback (Shaun Crawford) and franchise left tackle (Mike McGlinchey). There’s no heir apparent to Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day or Nick Martin. And there might not be one.
Where Notre Dame needs the most work is meshing all that talent together. And now Kelly must leave it to the roster to get that done before August.
“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly said. “And that naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way.”
But this roster isn’t like last year when Kelly had surplus captains to run the off-season. There is no Joe Schmidt. There is no Martin. There is no Day. The team’s two best leaders might be Kizer and Zaire, which means one isn’t playing.
Kelly spent spring ball talking about getting more players to force the leadership issue. In other words, there’s a leadership gap at Notre Dame right now. That doesn’t mean the Irish won’t fill it, it just means there’s more work than usual in that department entering summer.
“We probably would like a little bit more personality in some senses, but we tell them where to go and they go,” Kelly said. “The only thing is, we've got to tell them where to go, every day. And so we've got to continue to work on that element with this group.”
It’s on Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu, McGlinchey and TBD quarterback to deliver that. Throw Drue Tranquill into that mix too. Those guys know it. Same with Hunter, far-and-away Notre Dame’s top receiver but also a self-described “introvert” when it comes to teammates.
“I’ve kind of got to force it out,” Hunter said. “It needs to be done. Somebody needs to do it. Coach can’t do it alone.”
When it comes to leadership, Notre Dame’s best bet on multiple levels might be Kizer. The junior commands the spotlight and can read a defense. He can keep his cool at a podium as well as in the pocket. His skillset is as much about getting the job done as how he does it.
When Kevin Stepherson dropped a perfect over-the-shoulder pass in the first quarter, Kizer sprinted down field to keep the early enrollee’s head up. When Tarean Folston got his first carry since tearing his ACL last September, Kizer waved his arms to encourage the crowd to cheer. When Hunter caught that one-handed bomb from Zaire for a 50-yard gain, the first player to congratulate Hunter was Kizer.
That stuff doesn’t get to Kizer’s 10-of-17 afternoon for 113 yards that included a veteran’s move when he adjusted his arm angle with Jonathan Bonner in his face. The pass found Alizé Jones for a 15-yard gain.
Kelly put a different perspective on the quarterback competition by saying Zaire needed spring to get caught up and is only now getting fully healthy. But that’s also a sign Kizer is ahead. Considering his grasp of the offense and passing ability – Kelly’s natural offensive state – Kizer is the best bet to win the job with Zaire in a supporting role.
“If you don’t have confidence in yourself to get the job done, you might as well not ever be out there,” Zaire said. “I’ll always believe that I can help this team win a national championship.”
The same goes for Kizer. Whichever quarterback wins the job, Notre Dame will have a College Football Playoff caliber starter. How Kelly puts together a College Football Playoff caliber team is the bigger and better question.